No More Coal.

coal loaderI attended the Climate All Stars Conference in San Francisco on Friday, a one day gathering of Bay Area environmental groups and elected officials organized by Sonoma County’s own Climate Protection Campaign.

A major focus of the conference was to share success stories from here, other U.S. regions, and abroad in order to exchange best practices and find inspiration. I found it particularly valuable to hear from Erik Sten, Commissioner for the City of Portland, Oregon and Annabelle Malins, a British Consulate-General who is serving as the British point person for UK-California collaboration on climate change and clean energy.

Two major takeaways were:

  • Portland: if communities build with a focus on improving quality of life, they will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Portland invested money in street cars, which not only increased public transport ridership but brought in families from the suburbs who wanted to live in newly build units along the trolley lines. They also invested in greatly expanding bike paths. The result: a 5-fold increase in bike ridership.
  • Ms. Malins spoke about the 77% reduction in GHG emissions in the city of Woking, but I was much more interested to hear her stress the need for public awareness campaigns designed to help people take baby steps.

But who really got me was Ed Mazria, an internationally recognized architect and founder of Architecture 2030. While Ed has made and continues to make a huge contribution to efficient building design, his keynote was about something else all together–the need for everyone to get behind a shared vision: No more coal.

First, the sobering news.

Under business as usual conditions, we’ll hit the point of irreversible, critically dangerous levels of greenhouse gases by 2035. ( My son will only be 29 years old–five years younger than I am today–and may just be thinking about starting a family.)

The argument that climate change will disproportionately affect the world’s poor, however true, is counter productive, Ed said. It can falsely lead Americans to believe that they will somehow be protected from the worst of global warming impacts. This is just not true.

Though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was careful to not support a specific model projection, the latest report from Working Group 1 stated that “During the last interglacial period, 125,000 years ago, when the earth was this warm, sea level was four to six meters higher than today.”

Ed’s group conducted a study to examine the impacts of sea level rise on a number of U.S. coastal cities, starting at 5 meters sea level rise and working their way down to 1 meter. What they discovered was catastrophic flooding across the country, even at just 1 meter rise (a level that scientists almost uniformly believe to be a conservaFoster City 1 metertive projection).

Ed scrolled through a series of images that showed the impact of sea level rise on U.S. cities, like the one here that shows the flooding of Foster City (a stretch of Silicon Valley) at 1.25m rise in Bay Area water levels. The coastal impact study is really worth a view.

53% of Americans live in coastal cities. Just ponder the impacts on the economy, communities, families, individuals from Hurricane Katrina, which sent displaced Gulf Coasters to hundreds of towns and cities across the country… Now imagine those impacts multiplied by a factor of 100 or more.

The key thing, however, about Ed Mazria’s presentation was this: Counter to the conventional wisdom that solving global climate change is going to take a whole series of concurrent strategies, Ed claimed that there is, indeed, a silver bullet. What’s that? An immediate moratorium on the construction of new coal plants.

Coal is the worst polluting of fossil fuels and it also happens to be the one of which we have the most reserves.

fossil fuel reserves

Even as concern about global warming is reaching a fevered pitch, a new coal plant is built every week somewhere in the world. In the U.S. alone, 151 coal plants are in various stages of development. Ed’s take is this: There aren’t enough oil and natural gas reserves left to get us to that critical 450ppm number. So while it’s still important to focus energies on conservation and efficiency, transportation, tree planting, etc., the environmental community should unite behind one common campaign: No new coal plants. Why? Because the impact of coal plants dwarfs practically every effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A few depressing numbers to consider, to demonstrate his point:

  • Home Depot is funding the planting of 300,000 trees in cities across the US to help absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions… The CO2 emissions from only one medium-sized (500 MW) coal-fired power plant, in just 10 days of operation, will negate this entire effort.
  • If every household in the US changed a 60-watt incandescent light bulb to a compact fluorescent… The CO2 emissions from just two medium-sized coal-fired power plants each year would negate this entire effort.
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